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Aug. 8, 2011, 9:45 a.m.

The Kingdom and the Tower: NYT launches beta620, a crowdsourced testing ground for new projects

A new site brings a new level of transparency to The New York Times.

Gay Talese described The New York Times as, variously, a “fact factory,” “a cathedral of quiet dignity,” a “daily miracle,” and a “necessary proof of the world’s existence.” At the same time, however — and understatedly, as if it were a fact so obvious it barely merited mention — he noted the paper’s “insular atmosphere.” Whatever the Times was, Talese suggested, it was so in part because, physically and figuratively, the paper sat sealed and slightly separate from the world whose stories it told.

It’s been nearly half a century since the days of The Kingdom and the Power, and as the Times has sped from a daily to an hourly to a minute-by-minute miracle, the divides that have distinguished the paper from the people it serves have been steadily dissolving. The storytelling apparatus housed at 620 8th Avenue still has walls around it, definitely, but those walls are becoming increasingly transparent. And the latest evidence of that is beta620, the long-awaited website the Times just launched for the purpose of showcasing — and, significantly, soliciting feedback about — experimental projects for NYTimes.com.

“It’s all about spurring innovation — coming up with ideas that no one has thought of before, and having a place for them,” says Marc Frons, the Times’ CTO for digital operations. And not just innovation, but “continuous innovation.” The hope is that, in highlighting experiments as they evolve — and in providing a shared space for shaping their evolution — beta620 will be a place where developers, designers, readers, journalists, and pretty much anyone with an interest in the Times can engage in an ongoing conversation about its future. And about, specifically, the tools that will shape that future.

“We want to make it a very participatory site,” Frons told me, “as well as a showcase for our new toys.”

Some of those toys include: TimesInstant, an app that uses the Times’ Article Search API to produce search returns, Google-style, as users type; the Community Hub, a dashboard featuring stats on users’ Times-based comment history; The Buzz, a graphical overlay that visualizes articles’ social media stats; Longitude, an app that uses Linked Open Data to produce an interactive, geographically-oriented map of the day’s news; and the Smart Search Bar, a within-the-homepage search functionality that provides semantically-aware returns. (There’s also, less significantly but just as awesomely, an HTML5-based crossword web app.)

The whole beta620 site has a distinctively Kickstarter-y feel to it: Not only are projects presented with a whimsy not entirely typical of the Gray Lady — quirky illustrations, friendly explanations, a design that employs an unapologetic amount of pink — but they’re also presented as, basically, pitches. Developers are selling their ideas to the public, hoping they’ll catch on. Instead of funding, though, they’re asking for something that can be much more valuable: plain old feedback. Beta620 is primarily a social space where developers and users can collaborate and experiment, without disrupting the consumption experiences on NYTimes.com proper. So NYT-registered users can comment on each of the projects’ pages, and a Suggestions tab on the site’s main page leads to an open-field form soliciting ideas for “something you’d like to see us work on.” (While you don’t have to be a registered user to send in an idea through that form — all that’s required for that is an email address — the ideal commenter is, of course, a registered one. Beta620 is “part of our community strategy,” Frons says, a feature that, it’s hoped, will invest participants in its experiments. Eventually, he and his team want to build a public list of reader suggestions on beta620 — as well as, perhaps, a mechanism that will let the community vote those ideas up or down.)

Centrality — tracking all the Times’ experiments in one place — is another goal. The site has a “Graduates” tab that showcases projects that have, yes, “graduated” to implementation on NYTimes.com, among them Times Skimmer, Coming Up Next, and the article recommendation engine that went live as a site feature this winter.

The existence of those features hints at the fact that beta620, as a general idea, isn’t wholly new. (Boston.com has a similar initiative.) The Times has been running innovation contests for a while now, but those competitions had a significant drawback: their atmosphere, to be Talesian about it, of insularity. Beta620 flips the competition model inside out: “You try things out, you see how they fly, you see how readers respond to them,” Frons says.

And while that approach makes total sense from a development perspective — the tools being tested are meant for those readers, after all — it’s also a pretty big shift within the contexts of both R&D and the NYT. While not all projects the Times is working on will be highlighted on beta620 — some, Frons says, may simply need refining before they’re presented, while others may present a competitive advantage if they’re kept under wraps — a lot of them will be. With beta620, the Times is taking the lessons of end-user innovation and applying them to the process of development, rather than simply the products of it. It’s trying to make experimentation something that’s open and interactive — rather than, Frons says, “something that’s cordoned off in the ivory tower.”

Image of The New York Times building by zio Paulino used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 8, 2011, 9:45 a.m.
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